Being a corrections officer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is one of the least desirable professions in the United States.
The attrition rate for US correctional officers is high, with 40 percent of state correctional officers in Texas, for example, leaving their jobs in 2020. Currently, at least 12 states have officer vacancies of 20 percent or more, and Mississippi and Alabama have 50 and 58 percent of correctional officer positions empty.
Although working in corrections includes many benefits, such as job security, law enforcement training, and significant financial compensation considering overtime opportunities, challenges plague the profession. Correctional officers are more likely to experience violence, stress, burnout, posttraumatic stress disorder, mental health challenges, divorce, and other negative outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these obstacles as carceral facilities struggle to balance security obligations, reentry programs, and daily operations with the health demands of the incarcerated population and staff.
Because of the challenging nature of the work, departments of corrections often increase the training and educational requirements for officers. At the state and local levels, most agencies require employees to have a high school diploma or GED. Some agencies even require some sort of postsecondary education. To work as a correctional officer in a federal prison, applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree.
Encouraging students to pursue a career as a correctional officer
Given the increasing requirements, training, and unforgiving work, working as a correctional officer doesn’t advertise well to jobseekers, not even college students aspiring to become criminal justice practitioners.
For my research project Shades of Justice, I surveyed 590 undergraduate and graduate students across the US who majored in fields related to criminology and criminal justice. These students ranked the desirability of a range of criminal justice professions, and results showed that working as a correctional officer was the least desirable.
To combat this perception of the correctional officer career path, corrections administrators should consider tweaking strategies for recruitment and training. Although raising the level of education required to work in corrections may be attractive considering the complex challenges of the profession, my research shows college-educated people find the field undesirable. And, for those who are interested, there is a lot of competition from other law enforcement opportunities employers must contend with. As a result, corrections departments could reconsider requiring college degrees.
Instead, carceral institutions should work toward balance; that is, becoming an employer attractive to postsecondary graduates and invested in those with a high school diploma. To do so, carceral institutions can provide adequate intensive training and offer tuition assistance to non-college-educated people who may be more likely to desire a career in the field. Researchers and practitioners—including human resource departments—can also explore what motivates or discourages people from taking certain career paths, which could produce a more long-term solution. Studies suggest that providing incentives, such as signing bonuses, may recruit but fail to retain employees who were originally uninterested in the field.
Although no one wants to be a correctional officer, including college students working toward careers in criminal justice, carceral facilities still need skilled employees willing to take on the task of supervising incarcerated people across the country. Doing so requires pursuing reimagined, intentional recruitment and retention strategies.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.